Sunday 13 October 2013

Horses and History by Manda Scott

After having written about writing realistic battles in my last blog, I'd like to follow up with a brief look at the horse in history – and in particular, the ways we write about horses and riding.  Rather in the way that our fictional battles have a tendency to owe much to Hollywood special effects departments and very little to the reality of killing men on a battlefield, so does our estimation of riding owe much to stunt riders who have teams of horses, and the sound effects that are layered over them.  A friend of mine who is an event rider, was required to be an extra in the UK filming of one of the several epic movies that have hit the screen recently.  He was asked to ride flat out down hill at part of a group of twenty (which would then be made to look like hundreds), turn the horses on the spot through almost 180 degrees and then ride them equally fast back up the hill again.
When he pointed out that horses can't do that – turning hard at that kind of speed will explode their hocks, the producer threatened to get his stunt riders to prove that it was possible. Except they wouldn't do it either.    Which didn't stop the final film from being cut to look as if they'd done exactly that – so yet another generation of kids who know nothing will believe that this is what horses can do.
So let's go back in time.  For almost all of recorded human history, riding on horseback has been the fastest, most reliable form of land transport available.  A few people have ridden camels or elephants.  The military has used mules because they panic less readily.  Some have teamed horses together to draw carts, chariots, carriages, but even those only really go fast when drawn by teams of horses rather than ungulates. The horse is the answer, and has been on just about every continent (with a nod to the Antipodes where this was not the case) in the last hundred thousand years or so.
Our history of trying to relate to horses goes back almost as long.  Clearly, the first relationship between horse and human was as predator and prey and some of the earliest images of horses are in the cave paintings of Neolithic humans (recently demonstrated to have been made by women, not men:

Cave paintings at Lascaux. Image courtesy of Maanón

In the caves at Solutré in south western france, have been found the remains of over 100,000 horses killed and eaten between 12,000 and 32,000 years before the Common Era. By 3500 BCE, we have evidence of horses whose teeth show that they wore a bit, probably made of bone, but it is thought they were used largely to pull chariots. Only by the first millennium BCE were we thought to be riding horses by sitting on their backs. Around this time, the concept of the centaur becomes common in Greek mythology.
Fourth tablet of Kikkuli Texts –
Berlin, Vorderasiatisches Museum
Some of the earliest written records pertain to the training of horses.  Written in 1345BC, the four clay tablets which detail the Kikkuli Method of interval training, record the training of chariot horses over a period of 214 days and were written by the squire to the king of the Hittites, Suppiluliuma.  The techniques have recently been revived and are in use by some long distance endurance riders to condition their horses.
Horses groomed and watered.
Stone panel from the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal (northern Iraq), 883-859 BC .
© Trustees of the British Museum
Cavalcade West Frieze Parthenon
In terms of actually riding, the great master was Xenophon, who inspired Alexander who famously tamed and rode the fearsome racehorse, OxHead (Bucephalos). Xenophon's 'On Horsemanship' covers everything from selecting a young horse, through breaking, grooming, mounting, riding and the equipment one needed for battle. (a corselet and helmet for the rider, a breastplate for the horses, plus a machaira and two javelins of cornel-wood as weapons).  His discussion of a good foot, small, alert ears, good, round eyes still pertains, although his assertion that all horses should go with their mouths wide open is an interesting concept and presumably a reflection of the savagery of the bits that were used at the time (though I have to say, they don't look that bad).  Nowadays, we have gone the opposite way and have developed a tendency to crank horses' mouths shut. Even advanced dressage riders who should, frankly, know better, have nosebands equipped with a pulley system to force the horse's mouth shut, even if the bitting and rough hands of the rider leave it with a tendency to open its mouth.
Fragmentary horse from the colossal
four-horses chariot group which topped
the podium of the Mausoleum at Halicarnassos.
From the British Museum
It's worth noting that most of the images we have of Greeks on horseback show them bareback: saddles came later, or for long campaigns and were likely little more than a pad of horsehair felt strapped on with a girth. Stirrups didn't come into use for another thousand years – one of the rather more famous anachronisms in Gladiator is the moment when the hero mounts his horse using stirrups.  But then, his horse is considerably bigger than the ones generally thought to be in use at the time. When Xenophon describes the ideal way to mount as being to lift the leg completely over so you don't jar your horse's back, he's talking of grown men (of around 5'0") riding horses that were probably around 13hh.   Many of the images we have of Greek riders show what we'd now call a 'chair seat' with the legs far forward, and the body leaning back, which may be inelegant, but works for bareback riding.
Reproduction of a Roman Saddle
Image by MatthiasKabel
The Romans, by and large, were not great riders, but they employed the Celts as their auxiliary cavalry, who were excellent.  By then, a saddle had gained semi-rigid flaps fore and aft which held the rider's legs in place and allowed mounted archers, spear men and cavalry men to fight more effectively from horseback.  The saddles had rigid wooden trees, from which, doubtless, many cases of saddle sores arose.   Bits had also begun to evolve high ports and long shanks, both immensely painful, but able to stop a horse dead – or potentially to kill it if used hard so that the port pierced the hard palate and the lower part of the brain.  By this time, whole cavalry troops were in action throughout the ancient world and the horse had become an integral part of warfare.
They were also the means of rapid transport about the Empire. When the young Tiberius needed to reach the dying Germanicus, it is said he traveled 220 miles in just over a day, riding 'post' which is to say stopping ever 20 miles at designated way stations to change his horse.  We have to assume he was a very good rider and they gave him the best horses – and that this was probably the absolute maximum speed at which a man could travel – given good roads and the value of being the Emperor's chosen heir.
Towards the end of the Empire, the Mongol hordes sweep in and these are men who eat, sleep and drink on horseback.  Stories exist even today of young Mongol boys being strapped to a horse and that horse being chased off into the desert to run. When it returns home at dusk, the child is no longer afraid of the horse, or of speed.  (Anyone who's done any kind of therapy knows the terror went somewhere, and it's not likely to be beneficial, but if you're part of a race that's planning death and destruction across many thousands of miles, perhaps this is a good precursor). Later, the Cossacks claim that they rode mares in preference to geldings or stallions because mares could urinate on the run and so never needed to stop. These were hard men, with hard horses and if you believe in reincarnation, one of the many things you don't want to be, was a horse anywhere from about 200 AD to pretty much the present day.
Because this is the era when men discovered that wearing metal made them (slightly) safer, and so the horses had to get bigger and stronger and were asked to do more and the tack grew… harder.
By the height of the middle ages, the horses were between 15hh and 16hh (ignore the various internet articles that say they were 21 or 22hh.  Some people can't tell fact from insane fiction).  People were still around 5'0" but they were wearing 60lbs of plate armour and they conducted warfare from horseback.  The horses were trained in the manner of our Grand Prix dressage horses and the best horsemen must have been very, very good indeed.  Bits were grim, saddles were hard, stirrups were in (and had been since the Normans) and horses were frequently immensely 'hot blooded'.

Model of 16th century horse from
the Royal Armoury of Stockholm
By this time, the practice of locking horses (herd animals) in stables (solitary confinement) for long periods of time had come into vogue and the resulting assault of ammonia-soaked straw bedding on the keratin of hooves meant that the horses had to be shod to hold their feet together.   The damage this does is worth an entire book – and those books exist –but suffice to say the horse did not evolve with large amounts of iron locking its foot into place and its hard to hold them sound for long under these circumstances.  That said, the vast majority of people don't recognize minor unsoundness in more or less the same way as the vast majority of people who have horses don't know how to ride, so the practice continues unabated.
Life for horses was ugly, brutish and short, whether they were used in warfare, where they were increasingly the subject of cannon and, later, musket, fire (and even later, field guns and machine guns) or in civilian life where women were gradually permitted to ride, even if only sidesaddle and the gentlefolk went about their business in carriages. 'Home, James, and don't spare the horses.'
There have been in most eras, individuals who endeavoured to understand their horses and one of the more recent ones was William Cavendish, first Duke of Newcastle, who published two manuals of horsemanship, both of which still bear reading in the modern day.   Cavendish understood that punishment and reinforcement were the two most efficient methods of inducing anyone to do anything and that with a horse, it behooved a gentleman not to reduce himself to the level of the beast, but to offer reward as inducement. Given that one of the foremost trainers of the time advocated beating a horse with a cudgel between the ears and about the head until it submitted (and if it died in the process, then it wasn't any good), Cavendish offered what was an almost unique approach.
(a text at the time exhorts the trainer thus

           when the horse beginneth to lie down they may be readye to leape upon him
           and […] force him to ducke his heade downe under the water […] continuallye
          beating him all the while with their cogels […] berating him with loude and
          terrible voices. That done, let him onelye lift up his head to take breath & aire.)
Trust me, you didn't want to be a horse… and this was the late seventeenth century.
Some of Cavendish's theories were taken on board, but many people stuck with the cudgels and  on into the 20th Century when the rise of petrochemicals replaced horses with horse power and relegated the horse to its current status as expensive hobby item.
So let's have a quick look at how we might represent – or misrepresent- our horses in fiction.
We will assume that you know the harness/saddler and riding attire suitable for the era you are writing.  Beyond that, you need to be aware of the size and type of the horses you are discussing.  Until the modern era, horses, like people, tended to be small.  It's worth bearing in mind that in the early twentieth century, it wasn't uncommon for twelve stone Exmoor farmers to go for a day's hunting on 13hh Exmoor ponies – height doesn't always supersede the sheer stamina of the moorland pony and 13hh is plenty for those of us around 5'0" high – at that height, providing we've had practice, and providing we're not wearing 60lb of plate armour, or anything approaching it, we can reasonably expect to be able to vault onto our horse without crippling ourselves or it.  
 As the horses grow and as we increase our tendency to arm ourselves, we need first stirrups, then mounting blocks and then possibly a block and tackle to get us onto our horse.  One of the commonest anachronisms of the unhorsey writer is that of the hero/heroine 'leaping onto' their horse when it's easily been described as 16hh plus and said person is neither particularly fit or is heavily weighted with armour.  I have no doubt that the cavalry of Hadrian who so impressed him with their displays of riding and archery, were capable of mounting from either side at the walk, trot and run, as described by Xenophon, but it's not always going to be the case. Similarly, unless we've had a lot of practice at what my old teachers used to call 'active dismounts' and what were later to put me in good stead in learning high falls in aikido, then  falling off said horse is going to hurt. A lot.  Particularly if we come off at speed.
And while we're here, let's look at the concepts of sound.  Horses, on the whole, are silent. It comes from having evolved through many millennia where the sabre toothed tigers were on the hunt for noisy horses.  A herd of hundreds of feral horses sweeping across the Australian outback, is a thunder of hooves, but no screaming/squealing is taking place.  The same will be the case when the horses of mounted tribesmen/auxiliaries/knights sweep into battle. They tend not to make much noise.  They do scream at inconvenient moments – but usually only if one horse has been separated from its herd and needs to let its friends know that it's being kidnapped by evil monsters and they have to come and get it –then they make a lot of noise. 
But the 'Hi Ho Silver, Away!' scream of a rearing horse is a Holywood artifact, and is most often the noise made by a stallion on seeing a mare in season. It's a particular scream that happens at no other time.  
The rage-squeal made by colts or stallions when they fight, or by mares keeping other mares from their foals, is higher, thinner, more of a whine. And, for what it's worth, by far the most scary noise any horses make is a peculiar kind of grunting sound that comes out when you've got three stable lads on the twitch on its nose, and several thousand pounds' worth of fibre optic endoscope passed up its nose and you're trying to look at its larynx… that grunt lets you know that it's about to explode and nobody is going to be able to hold it.  It doesn't translate well into fiction, but anyone who's spent any amount of time with horses will know it.
Don't write about anatomy if you don't know it.  One of my least favourite, 'throw it across the room' moments with books that contain horses is where someone says, 'there was snow up to its fetlocks'  - which means the snow was about an inch or two deep and not at all impressive - where I am assuming the author had in mind, snow that reached hocks or stifle and was a serious impediment to riding.
So the joints of a front leg from the bottom up are: fetlock, knee, elbow, shoulder. And the hind leg is fetlock, hock, stifle, hip. The withers are at the base of the neck.
And finally, to riding.  Good riders are rare.  Even today, good riders are very, very rare.  The overwhelming majority of people who own and ride horses aren't riding, they're sitting on a horse and making it go – even the professionals.  If you take a car up onto the Newmarket gallops on a fast morning and watch the apprentice jockeys and stable lads and lasses go past… it's an education in the many ways you can sit on a racehorse and make it go and not actually be riding.  So you can get away with not-riding on quite a lot of horses for quite a lot of the time.  The horses may not be totally sound, and they may not be giving you all they can, but they'll be good enough to get you from A to B, and to keep you safe in battle, which is what matters.  Only the most highly trained horses with the most exacting jobs require people who can actually ride.  I'm assuming knights were at the peak of this, given the fairly advanced dressage manoeuvers that their horses were required to do, but even there, I'm sure some of them were better riders than others.
The point to remember is that learning to ride takes serious amounts of time.  Just about anyone can sit on a horse if it's quiet enough, and given the cudgels of training, there were probably more 'quiet' horses who had been broken in the genuine sense of the word, than we have nowadays when even the dopiest dope-on-a-rope can go from a standing start to a flat out, uncontrolled canter if a car backfires nearby, or a plastic bag leaps out of the hedge.   But proper riding take practice. It takes loose hips. It will, if you practice it long enough from young enough, alter the angulation of your femoral heads and the contours of your leg bones. It's not trivial, and it's not easy.  So when you're writing about it, stay this side of the Hollywood fantasy, well in the realm of reality, and you'll be fine. 
[Edited for typos]


Penny Dolan said...

Manda, thank you for sharing all this wisdom & knowledge. A great horsey education of a post, offering so much that I must try and remember.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Wonderful post, Manda! Thanks. I will be bookmarking it. I don't take many chances with the horses in my fiction. I keep it vague.

Mark Burgess said...

Fascinating, Manda, many thanks.

Petrea Burchard said...

This post is a resource in and of itself. Thank you.

The tales you tell of the misery of being a horse are heartbreaking. I hope this is coming to a close. I had two horses when I was a girl, one after the other. Big horses, both of them, and fast. I fell many times and you're right, it hurt. But I loved those animals like pets and I would rather they hurt me than the other way around.

Katherine Roberts said...

I have Xenophon's "Art of Horsemanship" - I used it when writing my novel about Alexander the Great, and it's a really fascinating little book that shows what fine horsemen the ancient Greeks were. My copy has lovely illustrations in it, too!